Who was Jonathan?
Jonathan was the eldest son of Saul, the first king of Israel.
The life of Jonathan, as far as we are told about him, falls naturally into 3 periods.
He comes on the scene as the right hand and lieutenant of his father in his early struggles to beat off the hostile tribes, especially the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11:1-15 ), who beset the territory of Israel on all sides. As soon as Saul had gained his first decisive victory, the people rallied to him in great numbers, so that he was able to count upon 3,000 men whenever they took the field. These were divided into two small armies, Saul retaining 2,000 and making Michmash his headquarters, the rest being stationed at Gibeah under Jonathan, some 5 miles distant as the crow flies. Jonathan thus commanded the base, while his father led the fighting force.
This position of comparative inactivity does not appear to have been much to the taste of Jonathan. Midway between the two camps was a Philistine outpost at Geba, facing Michmash across the pass of that name, a valley with steep sides, now the Wadi Suweinı̂ṭ . Saul does not seem to have felt himself strong enough to commence hostilities against the Philistines, and took means to increase the forces at his disposal.
The Philistines no sooner heard that the Israelites had cast off their yoke (1 Samuel 13:3 : for "Let the Hebrews hear," read "The Hebrews have revolted," after the Septuagint), than they came out in great numbers ( 1 Samuel 13:5 ). They seem to have compelled Saul to evacuate Michmash, which they occupied, Saul falling back on Gibeah (1 Samuel 13:16 ) and Gilgal with a greatly reduced following (1 Samuel 13:3 , 1 Samuel 13:4 seems to be a summary anticipation, in Hebrew style, of the events detailed in 1 Sam 14). In spite of this, Jonathan, accompanied only by his armor-bearer, surprised the Philistine outpost at Geba ( 1 Samuel 14:5 , "Gibeah" should be "Geba"), which was killed to a man. This feat precipitated a general engagement, in which the Israelites, whose only weapons appear to have been their farming implements (1 Samuel 13:20 ), Saul and Jonathan alone being armed with iron swords and spears, routed their enemies. The completeness of the victory was impaired by the superstitious action of Saul in refusing to allow the people to eat until the day was over (1 Samuel 14:24 ).
As this order was unwittingly broken by Jonathan, Saul wished to have him executed; but this the people refused to allow, as they clearly recognized that the credit of the victory was due to the energetic action of Jonathan in striking before the enemy had time to concentrate. (In the Hebrew text there is some confusion between Gibeah and Geba; compare 1 Samuel 10:5 margin and 1 Samuel 13:3 .)
The 2nd period of the life of Jonathan is that of his friendship for David. The narrative is too well known to need recapitulating, and the simple tale would only be spoiled by telling it in other words. Jonathan's devotion to David was such that he not only took his part against his father, Saul (1 Samuel 18 ; 19 ), but was willing to surrender to him his undoubted claim to become Saul's successor (1 Samuel 20 ). Their last meeting took place in the "desert" of Ziph, to the South of Hebron, some time after David had been driven into outlawry (1 Samuel 23:16-18 ).
The 3phase of Jonathan's life is that of the exile of David, when Saul was directing his energies to combat what he no doubt considered the rebellion of the son of Jesse. During this civil war, if that can be called war in which one of the two sides refuses to take the offensive against the other, Jonathan remained entirely passive. He could not take part in proceedings which were directed against his friend whom he believed to be destined to occupy the place which he himself should in the ordinary course of events have filled.
We therefore hear no more of Jonathan until the encroachments of the Philistines once more compelled Saul to leave the pursuit of the lesser enemy in order to defend himself against the greater. Saul's last campaign against the Philistines was short and decisive: it ended in the defeat of Gilboa and the death of himself and his sons. The men of Jabesh-gilead, out of gratitude for Saul's rescue of their town at the beginning of his reign, crossed over to Beth-shan, on the walls of which town the Philistines had hung in chains the bodies of Saul and Jonathan, and took them down under cover of darkness and carried them to Jabesh. There they burned the bodies after the manner of the primitive inhabitants of the land, and buried the bones.
If we may judge from the little which has been handed down to us concerning him, Jonathan must have been one of the finest spirits that ever lived. His character is, as far as our knowledge goes, nearly perfect. He was athletic and brave (1 Samuel 14:13 ; 2 Samuel 1:22 , 2 Samuel 1:23 ).
He could keep his plans secret when secrecy was necessary in order to carry them to a successful issue (1 Samuel 14:1 ), and could decide on what course of action to follow and act upon it on the instant. His attack upon the Philistine garrison at Geba (or Gibeah, if we adopt the reading of the Septuagint and Targum of 1 Samuel 13:3 ; compare 1 Samuel 10:5 ) was delivered at the right moment, and was as wise as it was daring.
If he had a fault, from a military point of view, it may have been an inability to follow up an advantage. The pursuit of the Philistines on the occasion referred to ended with nightfall. In this respect, however, he perhaps cannot be censured with justice, as he never had an entirely free hand.
Jonathan's independence and capacity for acting on his own responsibility were combined with devotion to his father. While holding his own opinion and taking his own course, he conformed as far as possible to his father's views and wishes. While convinced of the high deserts of David, he sought by all means to mitigate Saul's hatred toward him, and up to a certain point he succeeded (1 Samuel 19:6 ).
Filial duty could not have been more severely tested than was that of Jonathan, but his conduct toward both his father and his friend is above criticism. Only on one occasion did his anger get the better of him (1 Samuel 20:34 ) under gross provocation, Saul having impugned the honor of Jonathan's mother (1 Samuel 20:30 , Septuagint) Ahinoam (1 Samuel 14:50 ), and attempted his life. The estrangement was momentary; Saul and Jonathan were undivided in life and in death (2 Samuel 1:23 to be so read).
Friendship for David
But it is as the befriender of David that Jonathan will always be remembered. He is the type of the very perfect friend, as well as of the chivalrous knight, for all time. His devotion to David was altogether human; had it been dictated by a superstitious belief in David's destiny as the future ruler of his people (1 Samuel 23:17 ), that belief would have been shared by Saul, which was not the case (1 Samuel 20:31 ). In disinterestedness and willingness to efface his own claims and give up his own titles the conduct of Jonathan is unsurpassed, and presents a pleasing contrast to some of the characters with whom we meet in the Bible.
In this respect he resembles 'Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, who was the bravest of the brave, save when fighting in his own cause, and who had no ambition to fill the highest posts. So Jonathan preferred to serve rather than to command (1 Samuel 23:17 ). Jonathan and David stand for the highest ideal of Hebrew friendship, as do Damon and Pythias in Greek literature.
We may be sure that Jonathan won the affection of the people. His squire was ready to follow him anywhere (1 Samuel 14:7 ). David's devotion to him seems to have been sincere, although it unfortunately coincided with his own self-interest. Jonathan appears to have inspired as great an affection as he himself felt (1 Samuel 20:41 ; 2 Samuel 1:26 ). His quarrel with his father was largely due to the solicitude of the latter for his son's interests (1 Samuel 18:29 ; 1 Samuel 20:31 ).
Jonathan's sons were, in common with his brother's, killed in the wars. One alone - M eribbaal (Mephibosheth) - survived. Jonathan's posterity through him lasted several generations. A table of them is given in 1 Chronicles 8:33 ff parallel 1 Chronicles 9:40 ff (compare 2 Samuel 9:12 ). They were famous soldiers and were, like their ancestors, distinguished in the use of the bow (1 Chronicles 8:40 ).
IBSE, "Isaac" (in the public domain) with minor edits.